The Pandemic’s Impact on Finger Lakes Wine Country

By Annemarie Morse

In exploring the impact of the pandemic on the Finger Lakes wine region in the spring of 2020, I reached out to some colleagues in the wine industry. Life was so uncertain at the time. Was this a short-lived situation? Would it be over by summer, when many wineries count on visitors to support them? We actually had no idea of what would happen tomorrow, let alone next week or next month.

Despite all this uncertainty, people were still hopeful for a positive future. Grapes were growing, people were appreciating the wines and the hope was that this pandemic would be short-lived and contained so that business could continue for the busy upcoming summer season.

We were very lucky in New York that our governor deemed the wine industry an essential business. This was important not only for buying wine but for the agricultural side as well. The vineyards and the wine in tanks needed tending. At the beginning of the pandemic, Pennsylvania deemed that the alcohol industry was not considered essential and shut down its stores. There was an influx of Pennsylvania people coming to this area to buy alcohol.

Later this opened up and the consumers were able to buy wine in Pennsylvania including New York wines. As Dewi Rainey, owner of Red Feet Wine Market & Spirit Provisions said so well, “We can’t go through quarantine, a recession, and prohibition at the same time.” I wholeheartedly agree.

Many people in the wine industry here and I’m sure worldwide, were concerned about how long this would last, worried that if it lasted through the summer or if there was a recurrence in the fall, they would lose all the business created by tourists and visitors to the area. It would take an astronomical rise in online sales to make up for the loss of sales in the winery.

Don’t forget that the wine industry sales to bars and restaurants had taken a dive. The industry was fortunately supported by postponements of due dates for tax payment and filings for excise tax returns. Assistance was made available via the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) and the American Farmland Trust which launched the Farmer Relief Fund to support farmers with microgrants who are facing financial difficulty due to the coronavirus. The CARES Act is a $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill that includes a number of programs and provisions that will help support wineries and keep staff paid and employed. The Farmer Relief Fund made grants available to farmers due to the generosity of donors.

Alex Jankowski, of Wagner Vineyards, noted that “There was a week, where every single day, things were changing, new directives, new mandates, they were trying to adjust and adjust and once they finally got clarity, the pause button was hit.” People now had to reimagine their businesses, how to communicate with their customers and how to work with a new normal, not knowing for how long this would last. Wagner staff were one of the first to offer weekly online educational virtual tastings for their customers.

Dewi said, “March was a whirlwind month, I spent about five hours a day reading the news, listening to the radio/press conferences, trying to stay ahead of what was going on and not fall behind.” They were in the process of defining a tool for their eCommerce which happened to align well with how people were shopping. People were shopping more and more online and expected it to arrive at their door. She was able to keep the entire staff employed and switched to all online sales, offering free delivery service within the county. Since people weren’t going to bars and restaurants, sales of alcohol direct to consumers increased. Alcohol retail sales were up.

Christopher Bates, MS, co-owner of several restaurants, a winery, and catering businesses noted that re-evaluating how the wine industry would communicate with their customers will be a crucial step in success during this time. If people can adapt to online opportunities and a new way of doing business they will survive and excel. Online social media like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and emails were essential to continued communication with customers. Posting online and keeping people up to date with what they are doing at the winery is vital. It is interesting how purchasing wine online was an option many people didn’t consider, for many customers it would be their first time. This opens up a new way for people to receive their favorite wine at home.

Shannon Brock, co-owner of Silver Thread Vineyard, noted that this past summer the weather in the Finger Lakes was amazing. This allowed for many opportunities to offer outdoor tastings. These tastings were a bit more expensive than in the past but because there were fewer people, they were able to offer a more personal and engaging experience in the tasting. There was also the mandated addition of food which only enhanced the tasting. People made reservations and spent more time at each winery and generally bought more wine at each winery. Shannon also offered virtual weekly wine tastings which was a great way to connect with their customers and make new ones. Shannon noted that this pandemic brought a new demographic to their customer base. People, who in the past would have traveled to wine regions in other parts of the world, like Bordeaux or Tuscany, couldn’t make those trips during a pandemic and stayed local. People from New York, Boston, Philadelphia could drive to our “local” wine region. They visited and appreciated the beauty of our area and the really great wines produced in their own “backyard”.

The staff of Bright Leaf Vineyard, a small new winery, were happy to realize how sustainable they are as a business. They were most concerned that this pandemic would impact their business because many of their customers liked to physically visit the winery to enjoy their wine in a stress-free environment with a lovely view of the lake. Because the weather cooperated, people were still able to stop by, enjoy the scenery, walk outside and appreciate the environment. People who were driving by, were happy to see that they were open for pickup. People are appreciating and supporting local farmers and businesses. They are spending more time getting out, exploring the great outdoors, having a drink at the end of the day, and relaxing. We are truly lucky to live here.

Oskar Bynke, co-owner of Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard, noted the importance of being supportive of our local community, a cohesive movement of having NY wines support NY restaurants and other local businesses as well. Getting New Yorkers to support New York products. The biggest challenge they were all facing was uncertainty. Not knowing if there will be tourists coming in the summer. Not knowing what kind of income, you will have. As Oskar noted, “It is so important to make this an opportunity to get closer to some of the community because people are trying to help each other out. So even though we are separated, we are getting closer together.” Some of their retail staff stayed employed by working in the vineyards. Vineyards still need to be tended to. As Oskar put it, “Put your head down and focus. Wineries have survived wars before, now we have to survive a pandemic.”

I touched base with my wine industry colleagues at the end of 2020 to see how the year had ended for them. Speaking with Chuck Tauck, owner of Sheldrake Point Winery, he noted that sales were overall about the same, tasting room sales were way down and online sales way up in regard to previous years. It seemed to balance out. Chuck also noted that redefining their space became important. They bought a tent and picnic tables for their patio and used an online reservation system to better schedule outdoor tastings for a safer environment. This reservation system is very user-friendly for the visitor and the winery and allows for contact tracing. And to top things off, the weather cooperated beautifully.

Oskar, also noted that this pandemic had brought a new demographic to their customer base. People, who wanted a break from the cities and couldn’t make trips out of the country came to the Finger Lakes. They could experience the beauty of this area and enjoy the really great wines produced here in their own “backyard”.

Another interesting note was that 2020 was not a slow year for planting in the vineyards, a sure sign that there was a feeling of confidence about the future. Oskar mentioned that it was a good representation of the industry thriving because their nursery business was doing well. A positive sign indeed.

Last spring, everyone was looking forward to putting their 2019 wines into bottle, because it was a great year for wine. It was marked by cool weather in the Fall, leading to a long and slow ripening period that led to very nice flavor development, with retained acidity, and beautiful aromatics. As far as the harvest goes for 2020, Mother Nature could not have been kinder. The 2020 vintage promises to produce outstanding wines. Due to a lack of rainfall, the yields were low, lots of sunlight produced higher Brix levels and the concentrations were exquisite. I’m really looking forward to tasting this vintage, which promises to be an amazing vintage!

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